The following is an open letter from Caldwell Councilman Jonathan Lace:

Local government has a responsibility to recognize and honor the legacy of local heroes and also to help foster a culture of equality and respect for all people. These responsibilities are not mutually exclusive.

On Wednesday, July 15th, the Caldwell-West Caldwell Board of Education held a special public meeting online. At that meeting, a Caldwell resident of 16 years, Mr. Jonathan Hawk, stated that as a citizen of Native American heritage, he found the use of Native American imagery used by the Caldwell Chief’s offensive and disparaging. Later in that meeting, the director of the Caldwell Athletic Department, Mr. Danny Romano, provided a brief history of the Chief’s mascot.

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The Caldwell Chief’s mascot was established to honor the legacy of Mr. Harris E. Bonnel, former football, basketball, and state championship baseball coach at James Caldwell High School, who was given the honorary title “Chief” by a Native American Chief from New York during a high school assembly for his efforts to help educate young people on the experiences of Native Americans. The nickname “Chief’s” was understood to be possessive; Caldwell teams were the Chief’s. They were Chief Bonnel’s players. The name “Chief's” was never intended to be offensive or disparaging to Native Americans; it was actually the opposite. According to Mr. Romano, initially, the Chief’s mascot did not employ Native American symbolism for the first 30 years of its use. Over time, however, the use of that symbolism became more common and eventually, the accepted logo. The Native American imagery was not a part of the original use by the Caldwell Chief’s.

The etymology of “Chief” extends from Old French, which, in turn, derives from the Latin “capum” meaning “head or leader.” It is commonly applied across many sectors of our society to denote leadership. Such use is not intrinsically disparaging or racist in any way. It is honorific, in keeping with its origins.

However, the use of Native American symbolism used for sports mascots is becoming increasingly problematic. The American Psychological Association recommends that Native American imagery be retired from use by “schools, colleges, universities, and athletic teams, and organizations” due to the “… potential negative impact the use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities have on the mental health and psychological behavior of American Indian people." 

Therefore, in order to both honor the legacy of Mr. Harris “Chief” Bonnel and to help foster a culture of equality and respect for all people, I believe the name of the Caldwell Chief’s should be retained but that the logo of the Caldwell Chief’s should no longer employ Native American symbolism